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Is Your Online Footprint Clean Enough To Run For Office?

Don't google me, bro!

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The social media casualties are already piling up only a month into the longest Canadian federal election in recent history.

The Conservatives, NDP, and Liberals have all lost people running for Parliament over old Twitter and Facebook posts, and the trend is likely to continue, especially among younger candidates.

The most high-profile casualty so far was 21-year-old Ala Buzreba, the Liberal candidate in the Calgary Nose Hill riding who stepped down Aug. 18 after offensive tweets she had sent years earlier were dredged up by conservative activists.

Buzreba says she was mortified when tweets she sent as a teenager came back to haunt her.

"I didn’t expect it to happen," she told BuzzFeed Canada. "Right when I saw it I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s everybody going to think?’”

In one message, Buzreba said she was defending herself against racist abuse, telling a Twitter user, "Go blow your brains out you waste of sperm" and hashtagging it #racist, #asshole, and #bigot.

In another screencapped post that made the rounds, Buzreba taunted a pro-Israel blogger who tweets as @Israel_Shield, suggesting they should have been aborted. "Your mother should have used that coat hanger," she wrote after the account made a negative comment about Islam.

In a third, Buzreba made a comment about a new haircut, saying she looked "like a flipping lesbian."

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Twitter / Via bcblue.wordpress.com

Buzreba says she regrets all those comments, but she notes she made them when she was as still in high school.

“Maybe things need to be forgiven [when said as a minor] and things need to be seen in context," she said. "Put yourself in my shoes. When I was 17 and I was being bullied by a whole bunch of people online, sometimes it’s really hard to ignore them.”

Having one's adolescent musings easily available online for anyone to seek out is a problem most politicians don't encounter.

It also puts younger candidates for political office at a distinct disadvantage over older rivals who have not had most of their lives documented on social media.

It can also be a source of anxiety, as Morgan Baskin discovered when she ran for mayor of Toronto in 2014. Before announcing her run, Baskin, then 18, dug through years of social media history to delete things that could prove embarrassing or easily misunderstood out of context, asked friends to untag her from Facebook photos, and even agonized over whether vacation photos showing her in a bikini would prove an easy target for those who might discredit her.

Do you know how fucked up it is that I was deleting and digging through my own social media past from when I was 13 so no one could use it?

"My entire existence is practically online," Baskin told BuzzFeed Canada. "There's pictures of me in terrible clothes, there's pictures of bad haircuts, bikini pictures...old Facebook statuses about how such-and-such politician was stupid or whatever."

Baskin made it through the election without any controversy, getting more than 1,000 votes for mayor based on a platform of engaging youth. But she says older voters and candidates lack an understanding of what it's like to grow up with social media, which then narrows the pool of candidates available.

"I think we end up with the kind of candidates we've always ended up with, the ones who are the most polished and who are the status quo," she said.

Buzreba said that after her tweets became national news, friends who were also interested in politics reached out to her privately to say they feared a similar fate if they put themselves forward.

"They're interested in it and they would love to, but [they won't run] because everything we say is going to be picked with a fine-toothed comb."

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But that kind of scrutiny is quickly becoming the norm.

Some Random Political Blog / Via rjjago.wordpress.com

Another prairie Liberal, Ray Fox, stepped down as his party's candidate in Battlefords-Lloydminster after a questionable photo he uploaded to Facebook came to the Conservative party's attention.

Morgan Wheeldon, a former NDP candidate in Nova Scotia, stepped down in early August after a Facebook comment he made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was highlighted on MeetTheNDP.ca, a site specifically set up by the Tories to highlight such comments.

Last week, old blog posts by Gilles Guibord about First Nations and "men's authority over women" sunk his candidacy for the Conservatives in the Montreal riding of Rosemont–La-Petite-Patrie.

Another Montreal-area Conservative candidate deleted his Facebook profile after screenshots of comments he had made spread online. Among William Moughrabi's archived posts were violent jokes and questionable remarks about women in relationships.

Even the Bloc Québécois has had its candidates' online postings scrutinized. On Thursday Radio-Canada highlighted an old Ask.FM post by VirJiny Provost, an 18-year-old candidate for the party, in which she said the three things she would need to survive after a nuclear war were her phone, a penis, and chips.

VirJinie Provost / Via Facebook

Brett Bell, who worked on the social media team for the Progressive Conservatives during the 2011 Ontario provincial election, says the nature of modern campaigns is that everything someone has ever said online is likely to be unearthed as soon as they are are announced as candidates.

Many of the damaging tweets and other posts coming out now were likely researched far in advance, Bell told BuzzFeed Canada.

Now a managing partner at the web design firm Grassroots Online, which specializes in online political and advocacy campaigns, Bell has two decades of political experience under his belt and has provided social media training to many internet neophytes. He says candidates need to realize their online lives will be picked through.

"Every candidate in 2015 needs to know this is what's going to happen."

But it's not just opposition research, the practice of finding dirt on your political rivals, that is bringing so many old posts to light this election. Several of the above examples were noticed by individual activists or bloggers, including Buzreba's old Twitter posts.

The lesson, Bell says, is that if damaging material is online it will eventually be found.

"Hiding it or deleting it — we're in a world of screenshots," he said. "If you're already a nominated candidate and you're only now looking at your inventory of social media posts, it's probably already too late."

Ishmael Daro is a social news editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.

Contact Ishmael N. Daro at ishmael.daro@buzzfeed.com.

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